SpaceX Launches Crew-3

SpaceX successfully launched the Crew-3 mission to the International Space Station on the night of November 10.

Crew-3 had faced delays due to bad weather and an unspecified illness afflicting one of the crew members. NASA said only that the illness was not related to COVID-19 and was a minor one, though past experience with illness in space indicates that even the most “minor” illness could become a major nuisance for the crew.

Most notably, Apollo 7 commander Wally Schirra caught a nasty cold while in space and may have infected crewmates Donn Eisele and Walter Cunningham, which led to the discovery that mucus does not drain as well in zero-G as it does on Earth. The crew expressed concern about potential damage to their hearing while dealing with the symptoms. It may have been a factor in their reportedly grouchy attitude during the mission.

NASA makes a tradition of quarantining its astronauts before a mission to avoid a repeat. It also has procedures in place in case an astronaut becomes severely ill or is injured during a mission.

Due to the delays, Crew-3 was unable to conduct a planned handover period with Crew-2, which splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico on November 9.

Crew-3 will spend most of the next day making a series of maneuvers to rendezvous with the International Space Station, which orbits at an altitude of 350 kilometers (about 220 miles). The Crew Dragon will dock with the space station at about 7:10 pm ET.

With this launch, Crew-3 is SpaceX’s fourth crewed mission for NASA’s Commercial Crew program and fifth overall. The crew includes NASA astronauts Raja Chari, Tom Marshburn, and Kayla Barron and ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer.

The issue with the toilet that plagued Inspiration4 and Crew-2 should now be fixed. NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager called the chance to resolve any lingering issues with the Crew Dragon a “gift.”

SpaceX is particularly known for reusing hardware such as the Crew Dragon and its Falcon rockets, which helps it reduce costs. Its flights cost $55 million per seat, compared with $86 million per seat on the Russian Soyuz. Russia has occasionally expressed annoyance that the monopoly on flights to the International Space Station that it enjoyed since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011 has been broken.

It has already flown two of its Crew Dragons multiple times. Crew-3 is using the third Crew Dragon to be built for crewed flights and has named it “Endurance.”

So far, SpaceX is the only aerospace company to fly crews for the Commercial Crew Program. Boeing’s Starliner is still in development and has faced significant delays due to technical issues. In response, NASA moved two astronauts from the Starliner to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and assigned them to Crew-5, which is scheduled to launch in late 2022.

Once Crew-3 is docked to the International Space Station, the crew plans to conduct six months’ worth of experiments, including an attempt to grow a “perfect” crystal and a study of the effect of diet on astronauts’ health. They will also test a new smartphone app for controlling the Astrobee spacecraft and add a new robotic arm to the exterior of the International Space Station. This new robotic arm will be capable of moving and managing experiments mounted to the exterior of the space station, which could save time during EVAs.